Sao Paulo, Brazil – The Indigenous men emerge naked from the dense Amazonian forest. Pakui and his nephew Tamandua are the last two surviving male members of the Piripkura tribe who live on a reserve in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state.
They accompany a team of highly specialised agents to a government base, where they receive a medical check-up. After, they say goodbye in their Tupi-Kawahib language and walk back into the forest.
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The extraordinary scenes were captured in the award-winning 2017 documentary Piripkura that follows Jair Candor, one of Brazil’s most respected authorities on isolated Indigenous tribes, on an expedition to prove Pakui and Tamandua are alive.
Now, the Piripkura story is being thrust into the limelight once again following a recent, long-awaited court decision that Indigenous advocates say would safeguard Piripkura lands amid an alarming uptick of illegal logging and land grabbing inside the reserve.
At the end of April, a federal judge gave Brazil’s Indigenous agency Funai 90 days to form a task force to fully demarcate the 243,000-hectare (600,466-acre) Piripkura reserve, an area nearly the size of the US city of Seattle.
“It is clear that Funai has been negligent for decades when dealing with the Piripkura community,” reads the decision by Judge Frederico Martins, obtained by Al Jazeera.
Demarcation is the process by which Indigenous lands gain legal protection in Brazil. Currently, the Piripkura reserve is protected by an ordinance that has to be renewed every few years; the current one runs out in September.
Indigenous advocates say the ruling could not come soon enough as the activities of illegal extraction gangs in recent months have put Pakui and Tamandua at risk of coronavirus and armed violence.
“The demarcation has dragged on since the 1980s,” said Elias Bigio, a former coordinator of Funai’s isolated tribes department, which works with Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, like the Piripkura. “Now it’s so urgent because we’re seeing the greatest pressure by loggers and land grabbers.”
According to Brazil’s most recent census in 2010, about 900,000 Indigenous people belonging to 305 different groups live in the country. Of that, there are 28 confirmed isolated Indigenous groups, like the Piripkura, who do not have regular contact with society and live in remote areas.
Anthropologists say that the majority of the Piripkura people were slaughtered in the 1980s by illegal loggers plundering the forest. At the time, the tribe numbered about 20.
That same decade, Rita, the only surviving female member of the tribe, who is sister and aunt of Pakui and Tamandua, respectively, fled the reserve amid violence and was subsequently enslaved on a nearby farm. Rita was later rescued and then remarried.
Today, she lives on the reserve of the Karipuna people, also one of Brazil’s most endangered Indigenous groups, in Rondonia state neighbouring Mato Grosso.
In 2008, amid an uptick in deforestation in the region, Funai established an ordinance of restricted use for the Piripkura reserve, which has been renewed every few years since then.
In his decision last month, Judge Martins also ordered Funai to keep a permanent team of agents in the region to prevent illegal incursions into the reserve. “It’s very important,” said Eliane Xunakalo, a spokesperson for the Federation of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Mato Grosso. “They are unprotected, at the mercy of violence.”
But many of Brazil’s fiercest pro-farming and mining politicians have long scoffed at the existence of isolated Indigenous tribes. In 2011, then-Mato Grosso state legislator Jose Riva declared that there were no Indigenous people in the region where the Piripkura live.
More recently, in 2019, in an interview with the Estado de S Paulo newspaper, Brazil’s land affairs secretary Nabhan Garcia, well known for opposing the demarcation of Indigenous lands, also said: “There are a lot of people who criticise the large landowner, but today the largest landowner in the country are the Indigenous.”
Garcia did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment through Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture on Judge Martins’ decision. Funai, the Indigenous agency, also did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
The tensions are especially pronounced in Mato Grosso, an agricultural super-state with a population of 3.5 million and a cattle herd of nearly 32 million cows, the country’s largest, according to Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics.
It is also the capital of Brazil’s soy production, one of the country’s most profitable commodities, with 92,000 square kilometres (35,521 square miles) – an area the size of Portugal – dedicated to growing the crop. Meanwhile, Colniza, the municipality where the Piripkura reserve is located, is one of the last parts of the state that still holds vast quantities of untapped natural resources, like land and timber. It sits on what is dubbed the “arc of deforestation”, the agricultural frontier advancing into the forest.
The city is also a cauldron of environmental crime and violent land conflict.
In 2007, Colniza was Brazil’s most violent city with 165 registered homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. More recently, in 2017, the city hit national headlines when nine rural workers were murdered overnight by a group of hooded gunmen; state prosecutors said the killings were carried out at the behest of a powerful sawmill owning businessman who wanted the land. It was one of the worst rural massacres in Brazil’s history.
That same year, Colniza’s then-Mayor Esvandir Antonio Mendes was shot dead in his car and former city councilman Elpido da Silva Meira, who publicly denied the existence of isolated Indigenous people in the region, was killed in his home.
Today, experts say, one of the main reasons for the sudden uptick in deforestation inside the Piripkura reserve is that the area’s temporary protected status is running out. “People are occupying territory thinking that in October it won’t be an Indigenous reserve any more,” said Ricardo Pael, a federal prosecutor.
According to Pael, highly organised and well-known land grabbers are operating inside the Piripkura reserve, dividing the land into plots to illegally sell for profit. “In Brazil, we too often make the mistake of only considering drug trafficking organised crime, instead of crimes like illegal logging and mining that affect Indigenous populations,” he said.
Deforestation across the Brazilian Amazon has surged in recent months with the onset of the dry season, when loggers and land grabbers traditionally clear most land before fire season in August and then plant seeds for cattle before the rainy season begins around November.
A series of regulations regarding land claims on Indigenous territories and exportation of Amazon timber have also been revised since Brazil’s far-right populist President Jair Bolsonaro took office, which experts say has also contributed to the uptick in deforestation on the reserve, even though some of the measures have now been reversed by courts. Bolsonaro once declared that if elected he would not demarcate “one centimetre of Indigenous land”.
Antonio Oviedo, a researcher at Brazil’s Socio-Environmental Institute NGO, said 54 percent of the Piripkura reserve is illegally claimed by outsiders using federal and state digital self-declaration systems. The Rural Registry (CAR) is commonly misappropriated by criminal gangs in the Amazon to produce documents with which to make fraudulent land claims.
Oviedo added that the institute’s Sirad satellite system shows that in less than eight months, nearly 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) of forest – roughly the size of 2,000 football pitches – had been destroyed on the reserve, including 518 hectares (1,280 acres) in March alone.
“There really must be a serious number of men with heavy machines inside to advance destruction at this pace,” he said.
Now, a commission composed of progressive lawmakers, Indigenous advocacy groups, prosecutors and government agencies is being set up to monitor the progress of the judge’s decision on the Piripkura reserve. Rosa Neide, a Mato Grosso congresswoman with the left-leaning Worker’s Party and one of the lawmakers who will take part, said the goal is to create a consensus “to guarantee that the isolated Indigenous are protected”.
“We will demand the government to demarcate the land so that the Indigenous can continue to thrive there with the forest as they wish.”